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Better Mobile Web Browsing

The popularity of surfing the Internet on the go has designers building applications with simple, easy-to-use navigation.

The first time you log on to the Internet on a mobile device can feel liberating – until you start browsing. Familiar Web pages look foreign in mobile form: graphics are often replaced with text, online maps for driving directions can be difficult to navigate, and zooming in on too-small text gets tiresome. With mobile Web surfing growing more and more popular -– by 2008, 1.3 billion people are expected to be connected to the Internet via cell phones, according to research firm GSM Association – companies that design mobile browsers are using some clever tricks to make the small screen seem bigger – and easier to use.

This screenshot demonstrates a Nokia S60 browser feature that allows users to see where they are on a Web page while simulaneously zooming in on a portion of that page. (Credit: Nokia)

Nokia and Opera Software, two major players, are working on making the experience of mobile browsing as similar to desktop browsing as possible. And they offer developer kits, so independent software engineers can contribute to building more user-friendly browsers.

Nokia, which just opened up its browser source code last month, offers a high-end browser, the S60 browser. Transplanting a desktop-designed webpage onto a mobile device poses the obvious challenge of scaling down the page for a tiny screen and still making it easy to navigate. Nokia’s first step was squeezing the text column to fit onto a mobile screen, so a user doesn’t have to scroll left or right while reading the screen. This feature is especially useful for news websites such as the New York Times online, because each column is adjusted dynamically so it will fit onto a mobile screen, says Deepika Chauhan, technology marketing manager at Nokia.

Another S60 browser tool gives readers the option, by pressing a button, to zoom out and see an overview of an entire page. First, a user looks at the page as they would on a desktop screen, albeit scaled down; then they select an area to view more closely. After zooming in and scrolling to a different portion of the page, they see a small box in the corner of the mobile screen that shows the entire page layout, with a highlighted area tracking their position as they scroll around, says Chauhan.

A competitor, Norway-based web-browsing company Opera Software, uses a mobile browser technology, called Small Screen Rendering, that also reformats pages so text and images fit into a single phone screen, eliminating the need to scroll left and right. And Opera, too, allows a user to toggle between a zoomed-in and zoomed-out version of the screen.

Where Opera Software diverges from Nokia is the company’s Opera Mini, software that can be downloaded to a phone and will compress the size of Web pages, including media-rich ones. It routes a requested Web page to a server that pre-processes the page before it arrives at the phone. Eskil Sivertsen, public relations officer at Opera, says this pre-processing can shrink a 400-kilobyte website, such as CNN.com, to 10 percent of its original size. Since many phone plans include per-data charges, these smaller files can save consumers money.

Although better mobile browsing is obviously an improvement, some wonder whether trying to recreate the computer surfing experience on a mobile device is like print publications trying to replicate the reading experience on a screen.

Browsers that render Web pages as if they were on desktops don’t necessarily take into consideration the types of functions people expect in mobile browsing, says Ronan Cremin, style guides director for dotMobi, an Internet domain that provides guidelines for creating websites for mobile devices. “When you’re on the phone, it’s an entirely different case than when you’re sitting in front of a monitor,” he says. “You’re not just there to fiddle around; you want a bus time or a ticket price. It’s a targeted experience.”

That fact has Opera Software’s engineers hedging their bets – working on widgets, or mini-programs, that access the Internet for specific tasks, such as checking the weather, finding the cheapest gas, or purchasing movie tickets. Because people don’t casually surf the Internet on cell or smart phones, mobile mini-programs for specific tasks make sense, says Opera Software’s Sivertsen.

At present, there are about 300 million computers with Internet access, and many experts believe that market is close to saturation. But cell phones and mobile devices continue to proliferate throughout the world, especially in places like India and China. And better mobile browsers that make the Web easier to view on a tiny screen are helping drive the growth of that phenomenon.

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